Friday, January 25, 2008

Abstract Thinking

Few people could explain abstract expressionist art to the masses like Robert Motherwell, the youngest of the group of titans that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. Born January 24, 1915, Motherwell believed that “the public history of modern art is the story of conventional people not knowing what they are dealing with.” Motherwell saw the excesses of abstract expressionism as a positive rather than a negative. "Nothing as drastic an innovation as abstract art could have come into existence, save as the consequence to a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need," he wrote. Works such as The Little Spanish Prison (above, from 1941-44) tried to quench that burning need Motherwell identified in modern society. "Abstract expressionism was the first American art that was filled with anger as well as beauty," he later said, encapsulating neatly his desire to transform the anger welling up inside his artistic soul into something beautiful and communicative.

"Every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head. It is the real subject, of which everything he paints is both an homage and a critique, and everything he says is a gloss," Motherwell stated, and later emphasized in such works as Fishes with Red Stripe (above, from 1954), which recalls the calligraphy of Japanese art as well as the abstracted figurative work of Matisse and Picasso. Although Motherwell talked about the anger of abstract expressionism, he saw a playfulness in it as well. “Art is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it,” he once said, contrasting with such “art to the death” figures as Pollock. Motherwell married fellow artist He was married to artist Helen Frankenthaler, making them the “Brangelina” of the Color Field school of painting for a time. Such an engagement with life, rather than death, makes Motherwell one of the most appealing of the abstract expressionists.

Motherwell’s art takes a darker turn in his series of works titled Elegy to the Spanish Republic (No. 110, from 1971, appears above). Motherwell examined that political situation through the stark contrast of black and white, a shift that Pollock also made in his later works and Barnett Newman did to moving effect in his Stations of the Cross. Although his personal life wasn’t tempestuous enough to warrant a biopic, like Pollock, Motherwell helped further abstract art in America much more by living than by dying.

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